You don't have to go diving to vacation in these islands, any more than you need to eat hot chiles to enjoy Mexico.

Though the Caymans are not rated by many scuba experts as one of the world's best diving destinations, the clear waters, the reefs, the fish and the wrecks are just one facet of a Caribbean jewel that glitters brillantly and taxfree in peace.

If you are attracted by breeze-cooled, warm sunshine; clean, uncrowded, unspoiled beaches; integrated, non-race-conscious, friendly residents who smile easily and eschew politics; a lack of grinding poverty; informal accomodattions; good food and water with no problems; a modicum of duty-free shopping, and a booming "tax haven" with opportunities for investment, then this very stable little British crown colony is for you.

If it all seems a bit too perfect to believe, I will admit that there is one fiscal fly in the turtle stew (they raise turtles here -- more on that later), though so far not one mosquito has dive-bombed me. Visitors, whether on business or pleasure, must bring lots of money. As the TV commentator says, that's the way it is, especially in the Caribbean this winter "high" season.

At the Grand Caymanian where I'm staying (a franchised Holiday Inn but, like most "off-shore" members of that chain, not cut from the standard plastic motel cookie cutter), an ocean-front double with balcony will run you $108 U.S. ($104 single) until May.Without meals. That's $86.40 in "CI" or Cayman Islands currency. There's also a 5 percent government tax on rooms plus a daily $2.40 CI energy surcharge per room. And a 15-percent service charge is added automatically to all meals.

U.S. dollars re exchanged at a fixed parity of $1 CI for $1.20 U.S. (though when using a credit card to pay a hotel bill, which by law must be rendered in CI, a rate of 1.25 will be used to allow for re-conversion.)

A personable, frank and knowledgeable Cayman official had tried to explain to me why I really wasn't at a disadvantage on his islands with my sagging dollars (of course, to be fair, the dollar is still drowning in Europe and elsewhere, hotel and restaurant prices are still rising in the United States, and at least the exchange rate in Cayman is "fixed" and does not fluctuate from day to day).

But, somehow, this tourist doesn't expect to cash a $50 U.S. traveler's check in the Caribbean and get only $40 CI in return. Not with those Cayman prices! Then again, true Paradise has never come cheap. The government candidly states that Cayman is "not for everyone," -- though the reference is to the lack of "swinging night life" and the kind of low-keyed vacation experience these islands represent, not to prices. As the financer J.P. Morgan once observed when asked how much it costs to run his yacht, "Anyone who asks that question can't afford it."

More and more tourists (albeit still a small minority) are discovering what Cayman has to offer and apparently are able to afford it. The government's projected visitor 11 months tourism officials recorded more than 90,000 visitors by air (a 29 percent increase over the same period in 1978), and more than 52,000 arrivals by cruise ship (a 30 percent increase). About 78 percent are Americans. Officials were confident that the strong December hotel bookings would push them well above the target. And this year they're hoping for "close to 200,000" visitors.

It is 9 a.m. I am reclining in front of the Grand Caymanian on the midsection of Seven Mile Beach, one of the loveliest strands of sand anywhere in the Caribbean. Naturally, there have been some changes since my last visit four years ago. Prices have increased, condos are rising, and the financial business is gold-plated. But the good things I prized about the Caymans have remained the same: peace, environmental concern, controlled growth, and the beach.

How do I rate the beaches? Let me count the ways, using a scale of 1 to 5 with the high number representing top rating:

First, the sand must be clean and soft -- soft enough to cushion bare feet but not so soft that the feet sink in enought to make beachcombing and hiking or jogging too much of an effort. I give Seven Mile Beach a "5".

Second, the sand should kiss the ocean gradually, with a non-rocky shoreline entering the water for a distance of about 10 to 15 feet while maintaining a depth of perhaps 2 to 3 feet without a sudden dropoff or strong currents, thus making bathing safe for children and the nonswimmer or poor swimmer. The nature of Seven Mile Beach changes slightly, depending upon which sector is considered, but along the center portion I think it rates a "3" (depth goes to 5 feet too quickly).

Third, there should be unimpeded access for sunbathers, strollers and naturalists along the full length of shoreline, with no artificial barriers, and without a cheek-by-jowl assortment of highrise hotels that block out the sun. Structures along Cayman beaches can be errected no taller than about the height of a royal palm, and the center ocean-front section of the main building of my hotel only rises four stories. Score "5".

Fourth, there must be no pollution, either in the water, in the form of oil blobs or untreated or partially treated sewerage, or on the sand in the form, of tar, trash, or other "people pollution" (too many bodies, loud conversation, blaring transistor radios, etc.). Another "5".

The beach lover recieves an additional bonus in the Caymans, which are composed of three islands, Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, situated about 480 miles south of Miami. The water is so clear that even the inexperienced, close-to-shore snorkeler can enjoy the underwater view. eOf course, there are some other lovely tropical beaches in the Caribbean, and every traveler has his or her special favorite. But you need not take just my word for it. Margaret Zellers, author of "Fielding's Caribbean, Including Cuba," has obviously alos considered the total picture and comments in her book: "This island has no peer for offering quality accommodations on what I believe is the most attractive commercial beach in the Caribbean. I say commercial because the hotels are here, but in a quiet, unobtrusive way -- and there's nothing else that mars the scenery."

With the mild, early-morning sun on my face, I see Bob Soto's dive boat glide past on a smooth blued and green sea and pull up on the beach in front of Soto's dive shop at one edge of the hotel property.

Diving is a big business here, although not as big as banking (Cayman has perhaps 250 banks and trust companies -- a few more and it may sink). All scuba categories from beginner to advanced are attracted by the shallow reefs, some within swimming distance of a beach; the wrecks, walls, caves and the excellent visibility. (See the underwater report from Cayman by David I. Rosenberg on Page l3, and Robert Galano's dive story on the British Virgins, Page £3). Wearing swim suits and lugging their equipment, the eager divers hurry aboard the vessel for the short trip to whichever of numerous sites the divemaster has selected for the 2-tank morning adventure.

I roll over on the sand and feel the cooling breeze that each day softens the heat of the mild, soothing early-morning winter sun. Temperatures will no doubt again reach into the low 80s, as they have on most of the four days I have been roaming Grand Cayman. However, the humidity is not high and is scarcely noticeably on the beach, and while I have noted some roaches in my hotel I have not been bitten by a single mosquito.

The pesky bloodsuckers do exist, of course -- some 28 varieties -- but there is a Mosquito Control Program. Summer, of course, is hotter, as on most Caribbean islands (the "Cayman Islands Handbook" speaks of some "really sticky days . . . "), which is one reason prices drop in the "off-season." Rainfall is heaviest from May to October, the period when one would expect to find mosquitoes on the prowl, but I have never visited these islands in summer.

There is always a breeze, tourism officials aver, though I would count on that only when close to the ocean, which is where sensible tourists congregate in any case. During this visit, even on a trip into town (the islands' capital, George Town) with its concrete and rows of buildings, the breeze vanished and that "mild" sun quickly revealed its true face.

I flew into Owen Roberts Airport from Miami on a Republic Airlines DC-9 in about 55 minutes, overflying Cuba. From Washington figure on losing the better part of a day getting to and from Grand Cayman due to the need to change planes in Miami.

Republic offers daily service from Miami, Monday through Sunday, and one flight a week from Fort Lauderdale. Cayman Airways now has 16 roundtrip flights a week from Miami andfive from Houston. Lacsa, the Costa Rican airline, flies from Miami four times a week to Cayman enroute to San Jose, Costa Rica. Make sure you reconfirm after arriving in Grand Cayman if your visit will be for more than 72 hours. I followed Republic's procedure, filled out a reconfirmation card aboard the flight from Miami, and handed it to the stewardess. The card never arrived at the airline's George Town office (fortunatley), I did not trust the system and found out they had goofed when I visited their office).

For some years there has been official talk about erecting a new terminal building -- this year construction is definitely scheduled to begin -- but the somewhat tacky, open-air structure (a bit on the warm side) still greeted me and still seemed like a suitable introduction to relaxed island life. What the Immigration and Customs oficials lacked in speed they more than made up for in friendliness. If you come down here to hurry, better you should stay home. North American visitors need only show proof of citizenship, such as a passport, voter registration card or birth certificate.

Soon the airport cab dispatcher assigned me to a vehicle operated by one of his friends (the total population of these islands is about 17,000, and it almost seems as if everyone knows everyone else). In perhaps 10 minutes we arrived via narrow, winding roads at the Grand Caymanian, which remains the biggest hotel with 183 rooms and one of the best (certainly the liveliest) despite a few drawbacks I'll discuss.

First, about those cabs.If all cab drivers -- in the Caribbean and elsewhere -- were as pleasant as Caymanian hackers, the life of the tourist would certainly be less of a hassle. I did have trouble understanding their English in a few cases, due to the dialet.According to "The Tourist Weekly," their speech is "a mixture of American southern drawl and the English slur, with a Scottish lilt to end a statement." That's not to say you won't hear excellent English spoken by the hotel personnel, shopkeepers and most other Caymanians you deal with.

What annoyed me was the fact that though cab rates are supposed to be posted, I could not find a written copy even in my hotel (I discovered late in my visit that the free "Cayman Islands Guide 1979" carried an outdated listing). I do not imply dishonesty on the part of the drivers; far from it. I have not been flim-flammed with my two currencies. Yet one should not have to repeatedly ask the rate. Fares are not only not cheap (around $6.75 CI, without tip, for the short ride from the airport to Seven Mile Beach hotels like the Galleon Beach and its neighbor, the Grand Caymanian, and $3 CI for the bried stip to downtown shopping), but an independent cabbie who does not belong to the hackers' association may charge a slightly different rate.

If you have time to spare, there's a bus serving the Seven Mile Beach area that will take you into town with the Caymanians for only 50 cents CI. aIf you head into town frequently, the bus can save you a lot of cabfares.

My oceanfront room was spacious. The view of the beach and the Caribbean was enough to make a winter-hating Washingtonian blink away a tear. The room's interior appeared somewhat worn around the the edges. The sliding screen door to the pleasant balcony was kocked off its tracks and had a number of holes, not all of them patched (the hotel maintenance man, who came quickly after I complained to the front desk that my window air conditioner was not cooling, put the screen back in place but shook his head and commented with island logic that it would only fall out again. He replaced my air conditioner with another monster that worked but was just as noisy as the first.

I though the room was overpriced notwithstanding the view and the sand and sun -- which is what you're really paying for in the Caribbean in winter.

If your poor enough nightcaps or just don't mind what to many has become "normal" noise pollution from AC window units in their own homes, you won't have a sleeping problem. Being accustomed to quiet, I preferred to slide in place the screen door facing the ocean, risk mosquitoes, and listen to the surf (fortunately, no insects entered, and though there was no cross-ventilation, the humidity was not excessive). Also, I enjoyed a few nights before holiday crowds filled every room and my brain had to choose between the waves, Latin music from a portable placed on a balcony railing one floor below, and a blaring radio at the poolside bar filling the night air with another melody. The mattress and I were both tired.

The housekeeping obviously left something to be desired. Some of the hallways looked as if they had not been vacuumed in a week. Both elevators conked out as the holidays began, though one was later put back in service. But the staff seemed uniformly pleasant and helpful, doors didn't slam, as most hotel doors do, plumbing was relatively silent (a minor miracle), and a security guard patrolled the property and walked the corridors at night (though this is not an island where one need feel the slighest tremor since tension is the stranger in this paradise).

Later, I learned from tourism officials that the Health Department keeps a tight rein on hotel properties and, after a series of inspections disclosed numerous housekeeping infractions, had ordered the Holiday Inn to shape up, thus confirming my own observations. As I was preparing to depart, the Holiday Inn apparently complied with requirements following an extension. The Beach Club, another hotel, was forced to close to rectify deficiencies, officals told me, but has since reopened.

The Cayman Islands Reservations Service, which confirms bookings for U.S. travel agents, lists 39, mainly small properties with a total of nearly 2,000 beds, which accounts for 98 percent of the accomodations for tourists on the three islands, the vast majority of rooms in hotels, condominiums, clubs and villas being on Grand Cayman. Many offer cooking facilities and/or dining rooms.

There is no question that it is cheaper for a family to rent a beach-front villa or apartment for one or two weeks, and stock up with food at least for breakfasts and lunches. Despite the high cost of imported fruits, vegetables and canned goods in the supermarket, you will chalk up substantial savings over resturant prices, not to mention having the luxury of two bedrooms, two baths and other facilities at about the same daily rate charged for an oceanfront double in a top hotel with twin beds and no family privacy.

While the Grand Caymanian is apparently the most expensive hotel -- and no one can fault its very attractive, spacious poolside and beach setting -- other properties are not too far behind in price. The Galleon Beach, for example, with 33 rooms, charges $75 U.S. in high season for its "deluxe" double with a less charming hotel layout. And next door are rising new Galleon Beach Villas. However, there is no such thing as a bad setting on Seven Mile Beach, and you can go diving from any of its hotels with pickup by bus or directly by dive boat operated by various firms.

Also, bear in mind, that since Cayman is so popular with divers, there are a number of "diving resorts" that speicialize in all-inclusive dive packages. One that I visited, Spanish Bay Reef, is well booked because of its location a short boat trip from the North Wall, and divers can even walk off the beach and swim to a nearby reed when the sea is calm. but the resort sits on a point facing wide open ocean, and the beach is small, rocky and unappetizing. I don't think this is a place for the non-diver.

Rental cars and mopeds are available. Knowing my motoring habits I do not trust myself to drive on the lefthand side of Cayman roads after seeing some blind corners and tail-gaters. An ideal, money-saving compromise would be to rent a villa or condo near a hotel with good dining facilities and thus be able to walk to supper.